Thursday, May 13, 2010

Deschooling Society: The Value of School

How do you value your education?
Do you look to what you earned, the certificate or diploma or degree hanging on the wall, or do you value what you learned, what you know, what you have retained?

I don't value the diploma on the wall as much as my Alma-mater would like me to. I frankly regret the student loans that I am still paying off more than 15 years after the fact.

I remember my father telling me that college would "teach me how to think." This is from a man who was self-taught his entire life, from dismantling and repairing clocks as a child, to building electric motors and radios as a teen, to a brief stint in the Navy as a radio guy, to a job in a radio station, to CB and HAM radio and his career as a microwave communications technician. So even he, who was essentially a C-average student from a rural poor family and who only could afford one semester in college, he so valued higher education that he indoctrinated me in its value.

My aunt, who was a teacher at the time, encouraged me to study Engineering. She was adamant that with a degree, you would be able to "write your own ticket." Foolish me, I listened, and signed on the line. Four years after I sought the path to writing my own ticket, the U.S. entered the toughest job market since the Depression.

Seth Godin warns of a coming meltdown in higher education. Tuition is rising faster than the potential income one would get if they graduated with a degree - so there are degree mills out there which work around this problem for those with gaps in their moral armor. Thank you Scott Adams:

But that raises a great question, why would someone work so hard to get those letters on their resume? Is there discrimination in the workforce against people without those letters? Why, yes there is! Without those magical letters your resume will not even be looked at by a recruiter. You not only need the key words (Project Manager, Finish Carpenter, Phlebotomist) but also the key letters: BA, BS, MA, MS, MBA or even PhD.

These letters say that you spent four or eight or twelve years of your life at an institution. It means you could afford to spend those years out of the workforce, through your amazing scholarships or generous relatives or bountiful student loans. These letters may even say that you can conform, you will fit in, you can ease into the culture of the new company because you could conform to the artificial society which is a College or University.

These letters don't say that you can do a job well - but they open a door that will be closed in your face if you don't have those letters. In Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich calls for a law "protecting the citizen from being disqualified by anything in his career in school" in order to prevent "discrimination in hiring, voting, or admission to centers of learning based on previous attendance at some curriculum."

Imagine that, you wouldn't need those letters at the end of your resume or after your name in order to be good at a job! Lest you think this opens the door to incompetence, the author does qualify his statement to say that "this...would not exclude performance tests of competence for a function or role, but would remove the present absurd discrimination in favor of the person who learns a given skill with the largest expenditure of public funds or what is equally likely has been able to obtain a diploma which has no relation to any useful skill or job."

So with the letters, you aren't an expert? If I have an accounting degree, can't I go off and be an accountant somewhere? Maybe, yes. But how well you do that job is more dependent on your internship / senior project / professor and peers than the actual degree.

I work with a person who has a PhD in Economics. He spends his days using MS Excel and MS Access to wrangle data from disparate systems, building business reports. He's not running an Investment firm or whatever one is supposed to do with that degree, he's doing a job that some minimally skilled person with a few Microsoft courses under their belt and some good reporting writing skills could do.

Godin says "we won't be fooled again," but I know many in my generation are the helicopter parents pushing their kids up the great cattle-chute which is higher education. Why would otherwise rational people commit their lives and their children to a system which is failing? Maybe because, in my next post, School is a Religion!!!


  1. i can agree with alot of the things you said here. i'm an RN and although i do see the need for some of the class room things i did learn, i learned a whole lot more on my clinical rotations and in the last 15 years of being on the job then i learned in the classroom.
    i have often wondered what will come of our higher education system. i went to community college 17 years ago and spent a grand total of $4000.00 which we paid out of pocket for my ADN in nursing, which has more then paid for itself. while dh has spent well over $40,000.00 on his MA in education. we will be paying on that for 25 years. lol not that it hasn't brought about great jobs, but his education has not prepared him for all that he does in his job, it just got his foot in the door. it is being on that job, doing it everyday that has made him great at his job.
    trying to break away from the whole system seems almost impossible when so many people believe that it is the "only" way. i am not one for doing something just because everyone else is doing it, but it is a bit scary... to suggest to your kids that they don't need college (which honestly i don't think they do (although i personally enjoyed loads of my classes and loved a lot of my professors) how do you go about being that change? how do you break out of that mold and say "you don't need a degree" when every place wants you to have one?

  2. My degree prepared me for exactly nothing toward my career - so how can I avoid being a hypocrite if I push my kids toward college?
    Until we have a law that bans discrimination based on formal education, people will still need to get those letters on their resumes.
    I don't have the one answer, but I appreciate the discussion about how we might move beyond our current broken system.

  3. In Scandinavia, where I come from, education is paid from tax-money and is practically free of any additional charge required by the student. Degrees mean a lot here, but since education is free, they do not create as heavy a separation between low-income and high-income families as in the US. Just a remark to open your mind to thoughts on what education could mean in another kind of society structure.

    And another thought, regarding school teaching one how to think. My dad said the same to us of high school, and I agree. It also inspired me to critisize, to debate, and to analyze, as well as to speak several languages and have a basic knowledge of everything from politics to religion to history to sciences.

    University taught me even deeper levels of how to analyze, critisize, solve problems, and debate. However, I do agree that there is one main problem with university education being the most desired form of education: deep down to its roots, a university education is an academic scientist's education. It teaches a scientific way of thinking, and is therefore unnecessary to all those who are not interested in the sciences. Sure, universities have been expanded to include everything from business to teaching to interpreting, but the ancient roots and structure of university education is based on science.

    Therefore I think all non-scientific or quasi-scientific subjects should be pulled out of the university. There needs to be a shift in the way people view non-university education as having less prestige. A non-university education should only mean that you are not interested in scientific subjects, that's all.

    1. What you say makes a lot of sense. I still hope that the day will come when degrees are no longer considered the only qualifications for entry into a career, even in science. This is possible if degrees could be conferred alternately by passing exams regardless of how the applicant came by the knowledge, so that the self-taught person who can function just as well at organic chemistry and other requirements, can be considered for the same jobs open to the person who got a college degree. Better yet, have everyone take the same test for those opportunities, whether they bought a degree or not, so that simply having a degree will not be considered proof of knowledge.

      We are locked in an arms race of degree-inflation at the same time that our expectations of improving everyone's lives through more and more years in institutions of education, are depriving people of their entire youth of real-world experience. Preschool is the new Kindergarten, and Kindergarten is the new first grade. On the other end, college is the new high school, and graduate school, the new college. That means a populace now expected to be at a desk from 4 or 5 years old, to nearing 30, only to experience their first taste of the 'real world' with crippling debt and job prospects that are being outsourced, while low-wage jobs that never required even a high school diploma, are being fought over by degree-holders.

      That is why we have people living with their parents at 30, working days as a grocery cashier, and nights pouring coffee at Starbucks, for low wages, and even had to have the degree, to compete against other degreed applicants, for the coffee-pouring job.

      I am grateful that my kids are still little enough, that we have a few years before we will have to figure out an approach, preferably with lots of secondary plans, for their adult autonomy. Here's hoping we'll know more about it then.